February 23, 2022

“The Castle” at 100 — Kafka’s Unfinished Symphony

By Stuart Mitchner

“K. was haunted by the feeling that he was losing himself or wandering  into a strange country …”

—Franz Kafka (1883-1924), from The Castle

Although I didn’t finish Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle in time to meet the deadline for this article, I wasn’t about to rush through a long-delayed return visit to this “strange country.” Like Franz Schubert’s Unfinished, Franz Kafka’s Unfinished delivers the equivalent of a full symphony. For a start there’s the rollicking scherzo of the third chapter, where K., the unwanted Land Surveyor, feels that he “might die of strangeness” as he rolls around “for hours” on the floor of the Herrenhof with a barmaid named Frieda while “their hearts beat as one,” and you feel that, like K., you’ve strayed into a country “whose enchantment was such that one could only go on and on and lose oneself ….”

For company on the journey, I’ve been reading Martin Greenberg’s translation of Diaries 1914-1923, along with Kafka’s letters from the period when he was at work on a novel he had reason to believe would be his magnum opus. I’ve also been consulting Kafka: The Years of Insight, the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s definitive biography, published in 2013 by Princeton University Press and insightfully translated by Princeton resident Shelley Frisch.

Breaking the News

Kafka began writing The Castle in or around January 1922, and gave it up in late August, breaking the news to his friend and executor Max Brod on September 11 of that year. As Stach phrases it, Brod “replied merrily that he could only regard Kafka’s message as ‘fabricated sensationalism’ “ and advised him “to write more about the matter at hand, ‘that is, about continuing on with work.’ “

Stach explains what Kafka was up against, having developed “a whole network of social relationships,” introducing “more and more characters” who all “have their own stories; they forge alliances and foster hostilities, despise or love one another,” and it was up to Kafka “to follow them through to the end and to tie them together plausibly.”

Bypassing the Curse

One advantage of an unfinished work is the way it simply bypasses the so-called “curse of the denouement.” On page 256 of the Everyman edition, you run up against the closed door of a note stating, “Here the text of the First German edition of The Castle ends.” (By chance or design, the text’s last four words are “the door was closed.”) The ending feels even more abrupt in Michael Haneke‘s 1996 film when two hours into the journey a notice hits the screen like a storm warning, the train stops, everybody out, and you find yourself in a remote station in the middle of Kafka country blinking your eyes in the snowy haze wondering where do you go from here? In the Everyman edition you can at least go on reading the various fragmentary “continuations” that Max Brod found among Kafka’s papers.

100 Years Ago

A hundred years ago today, February 23, 1922, Kafka informed his diary that “possibilities exist in me, possibilities close at hand that I don’t yet know of; only to find the way to them! and when I have found it, to dare!” The entry ends with a fragment, set apart from the rest, “Your drowsy fantasies recently.” Maybe because I usually read the diaries between 2 and 3 a.m. by the glow of a booklight, I associate “drowsy fantasies” with a supremely peaceful nocturnal mood, free from intrusive daytime noises like those Kafka complains of in letters to friends written from Planá, a summer resort 100 miles south of Prague, where he was staying with his youngest sister Ottla in the spring and summer of 1922. The intrusions he suffered while working on The Castle included a boy practicing the French horn; wood being chopped for hours under his window; the electrical buzz saw at a saw mill; hammering and clanking chains from the nearby railway station, also nearby. But nothing aggravated him as much as the children playing outside his window,  described in a July 12 letter to Max Brod: “Right under me there was a nasty group, while a bit off to the left there was a nice one, lovely-looking children, but the noise made by both was the same …. For the past few days some two hundred Prague schoolchildren have been quartered here. A hellish noise, a scourge of humanity.”

Chaplinesque Intimations

The chaos of children at play can be felt throughout The Castle. Noisy schoolchildren and childish grown-ups infest the novel as well as Haneke’s film, where the Land Surveyor finds himself saddled with two maddeningly pervasive “assistants,” so insanely alike that he calls them both Artur. Imagine an infantile nightmare of Hamlet‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Thing One and Thing Two in Dr. Seuss‘s The Cat in the Hat, or those comic strip cut-ups the Katzenjammer Kids.

The slapstick chaos in both film and book, however, had me thinking most often of the antics of Charlie Chaplin‘s Tramp. Haneke’s K. is brilliantly played by Ulrich Mühe, who decades later moved English-speaking audiences in The Lives of Others, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007. Watching Mühe’s stateless, homeless K. trudge through knee-deep snow and occasional blizzards in a landscape right out of The Gold Rush, I kept thinking what Chaplin might have done with the early scenes at the Herrenhof. I was already sensing Chaplin’s presence in the opening chapters of the novel, when K. remembers his boyhood feat ascending a graveyard wall “with a small flag between his teeth.” At the top “he stuck the flag in, it flew in the wind, he looked down and round about him, over his shoulder, too, at the crosses mouldering in the ground, nobody was greater than he at that place and at that moment.”

Of course in Chaplin’s version of such a moment, the future Land Surveyor would take a head over heels fall from the summit of his moment of glory. But then the rough and tumble romance betwen K. and Frieda also has a headlong Chaplinesque wildness about it, he hiding behind the bar, she with her foot on his chest, the two of them soon rolling around “among” small puddles of beer and other refuse, going from a first meeting almost immediately into frenzied lovemaking, and even then the scene has a childish ambiance as Frieda “sang some little song or other and began to tug at him like a child.”

Yet it’s during the fun and sheer energy of this absurd knockabout sex scene, in both book and film, that Kafka tells you where you are, welcomes you to his world, in effect, writing (the film provides a voiceover faithful to Kafka’s prose, for which we have another couple, translators Willa and Edwin Muir, to thank): “There, hours went past, hours in which they breathed as one, in which their hearts beat as one, hours in which K. was haunted by the feeling that he was losing himself or wandering  into a strange country, farther than ever man had wandered before, a country so strange that not even the air had anything in common with his native air, where one might die of strangeness, and yet whose enchantment was such that one could only go on and on and lose oneself further.”

Thanks to the voiceover, these words are as striking in the film as in the novel, so much so that I can’t help wondering if Kafka might have deleted the “strange country” passage had he lived to return to and complete the novel. Perhaps he’d have thought it came dangerously close to revealing the pleasure he took in writing the scene. The idea sends me back to the February 23 entry, about the “possibilities close at hand” that he didn’t “yet know of.” The sentence I left unquoted because I wasn’t sure how to read it seems worth mentioning now: “This signifies a great many things: that possibilities do exist; it even signifies that a scoundrel can become an honest man, a man happy in his honesty.”

So is the scoundrel a prestidigitator who enjoys manipulating the reader and carefully covers his tracks, or is he the man “happy in his honesty” and so in love with his own art that he invents more than he possibly can contain between the covers of a book? There are numerous accounts of the joy Kafka took in reading aloud from his own work, which so delighted him that he laughed out loud and sometimes actually had to stop reading, to catch his breath.

Gazing Toward 2024

Thinking ahead to the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death in 1924, which will coincide with the 2024 election, I feel as if I’m standing with K, gazing toward the Castle, “which was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.”


The colorful cover image of The Castle shown here is from the Definitive Edition (1962), with an homage by Thomas Mann. I’ve ordered it because I want to finish the novel in the edition I used to see in bookstores when I first read Kafka in college. I have the Princeton Public Library to thank for lending me both the Stach biography and the Everyman edition of the Castle, but the face on the front cover, from a photograph taken in Berlin in 1923, shows the trademark haunted Kafka, whose world, in the words of Walter Benjamin, “frequently of such playfulness and interlaced with angels, is the exact complement of his era which is preparing to do away with the inhabitants of this planet on a considerable scale.”